BACKGROUND: Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are associated with altered sensory processing and perception. Scalp recordings of electrical brain activity time-locked to sensory events (event-related potentials; ERPs) provide precise information on the time-course of related altered neural activity, and can be used to model the cortical loci of the underlying neural networks. Establishing the test-retest reliability of these sensory brain responses in ASD is critical to their use as biomarkers of neural dysfunction in this population.
METHODS: EEG and behavioral data were acquired from 33 children diagnosed with ASD aged 6-9.4 years old, while they performed a child-friendly task at two different time-points, separated by an average of 5.2 months. In two blocked conditions, participants responded to the occurrence of an auditory target that was either preceded or not by repeating visual stimuli. Intraclass correlation coefficients (ICCs) were used to assess test-retest reliability of measures of sensory (auditory and visual) ERPs and performance, for the two experimental conditions. To assess the degree of reliability of the variability of responses within individuals, this analysis was performed on the variance of the measurements, in addition to their means. This yielded a total of 24 measures for which ICCs were calculated.
RESULTS: The data yielded significant good ICC values for 10 of the 24 measurements. These spanned across behavioral and ERPs data, experimental conditions, and mean as well as variance measures. Measures of the visual evoked responses accounted for a disproportionately large number of the significant ICCs; follow-up analyses suggested that the contribution of a greater number of trials to the visual compared to the auditory ERP partially accounted for this.
CONCLUSIONS: This analysis reveals that sensory ERPs and related behavior can be highly reliable across multiple measurement time-points in ASD. The data further suggest that the inter-trial and inter-participant variability reported in the ASD literature likely represents replicable individual participant neural processing differences. The stability of these neuronal readouts supports their use as biomarkers in clinical and translational studies on ASD. Given the minimum interval between test/retest sessions across our cohort, we also conclude that for the tested age-range of ~ 6 to 9.4 years, these reliability measures are valid for at least a 3-month interval. Limitations related to EEG task demands and study length in the context of a clinical trial are considered.
Beker, Shlomit; Foxe, John J; Venticinque, John; Bates, Juliana; Ridgeway, Elizabeth M; Schaaf, Roseann C; and Molholm, Sophie, "Looking for consistency in an uncertain world: test-retest reliability of neurophysiological and behavioral readouts in autism." (2021). Department of Occupational Therapy Faculty Papers. Paper 78.
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